From chapter 8 of From Nomads to Pilgrims – stories from practicing congregations, edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking. This chapter by Lillian Daniel. Published by Alban Institute 2006
People are hungering for wisdom on the subject of time. Sabbath is not the only unwrapped gift we have waiting for us in the Christian tradition. The liturgical seasons are also there to remind us that God’s calendar is more nuanced and graceful than we imagine as we rush from one appointment to the next. Just the fact that the church introduces a different calendar raises the provocative question of who invents time.
During Advent I spent three weeks preaching on the subject of valuing time as an unearned gift from God. At the beginning of the season, we handed out small purple ribbons and asked people to tie them to their watches or their date books. The ribbons were to remind us that in Advent, time is revealed as an illusion so much smaller than God. In Advent, Old Testament prophets predict a future birth that we in the present know has already happened. Advent is all about unravelling time and reminding us that in its mystery, time belongs not to us but to God.
I had wondered if people would wear the ribbons. As a minister I had thought that the ribbons would be a less severe conversation starter than ashes on one’s forehead at the beginning of Lent, but I wanted conversations to start nonetheless. Looking back, I was trying for testimony again and at the same time wondering if the possibility of being asked to testify would turn people away from the practice.
What happened surprised me. Not only did people wear the ribbons, but after Advent ended, they refused to take them off. By the time John delivered the Lenten reflection, his ribbon on his watch was ragged. The prayer journal that he had started at a retreat over a year ago was a tool I had forgotten about but one that he had held on to. In Lent when I asked people to pray twice daily, I also sent them home with a bookmark that laid out morning and evening prayers. Some people needed no such guidelines, but I knew that others might need something to hold in their hands.
Through John’s testimony I was reminded that for some people concrete objects play an important role in Christian practice. John, a math teacher and an athlete, cares about the physical world so passionately that he spends his free time recycling paper, cardboard, cans, and bottles in all the communities he is part of. Things matter. As ministers we may forget about people like John. We may forget to link ideas to things that people can touch and hold and see.